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The Strangers Next Door
Scenes from the Great American Motel.
I spend a lot of time in motels. I won’t call them a “home away from home,” but I’m comfortable with the ebb and flow of motel life. This includes having neighbors who might be doing things that bother me, strange noises in the night, and that never-ending drone of the boob tube coming through the walls, ceiling or floor.
I’m working on a book of vignettes from my travels. I’m grabbing stuff from decades of notes on all those nights—the temporary neighbors, the Coke machines and laundry rooms of the road. Some nights were mundane; others I wish I could forget. But when I think about the pains and the joys of motel life, it always makes me want to be out on the highway again.
April 13, 1996, 11:20 pm. Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
I’m sitting in my decrepit room at the Red Haven Inn, in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Been listening to dial tones for over an hour, dumbly pressing the “Return” button on my computer modem dialing software, FreePPP, as I continue trying to get an outside line in this quaint little excuse for a motel. They must only have two outside lines and I need to access Bob’s chatroom on AOL. He is in the room next door to me and on my other side are a few guys drinking beer and loudly watching Miami Vice. I am not the happiest person in this motel tonight, that’s for sure.
We got caught in a raging sandstorm in the gypsum dunes of White Sands National Monument today. I’m going to try to get online again. Just thought that I would take a short break to vent some steam and to document my situation right now. This Ida Lupino-style motel appears to have only one outside line. It’s incredible, but true. I’m going to try one last time, then go to bed.
May 23, 1998, 10:33 am. Escalante, Utah.
It’s about ten-thirty-two pm, and the cowboys next door are saying profound things to each other in deep voices as they watch the TV. The kids on the other wall are still running around and still screaming and crying. I went out for a minute to get some moisturizing cream for the cracked skin that just won't heal at the tip of my right thumb, glanced to my left, and the door of the kids' room was open. A shirtless guy, probably about my age, with pale, pasty skin and a big gut was sitting at the end of his bed, expressionless, watching the TV that was three feet in front of his face. He couldn't help but notice me step outside. As I stepped down the two wooden steps to the small, rusty pebbles of lava-like material that make up the skirt of the parking strip, he leaned forward and pushed his door closed. I had been half thinking of nodding or grunting a half-hearted, hypocritical hello-type sound to him. Now I didn’t need to.
May 9, 1999, 7:47 am. Motel 6, Spartanburg, South Carolina
The cool thing, of course, is to wake up, full of dreams and their drama and then, after a few seconds of disorientation, to remember that you're on the road. Not only are you not dreaming, you're not even your usual self. You're in some motel room off a highway, sun glaring under the cracks of the plasticized window curtain that you shoved into the inner window frame the night before so that the AC blower unit doesn't billow it out, exposing your sweet ass to full view of the world and those passing by on the way to get their free cup of lobby coffee in the morning. Uh huh. Oh yeah. That’s right.
2000. Helena, Montana
Well, in desperation to find a room, we went to the Lamplighter Motel in Helena, Montana. The desk clerk was a woman with a thick mop of hair, like black hair. It looked like plastic hair, really. She finally came out. Her kid saw us first, but he didn’t tell her anything until I rang the bell. She came out and I asked if they had a room – two people, two beds. She stared at me like a killer. In a very deep voice, she said that they were thirty-eight dollars. But then she proceeded to tell me that she didn’t have any. Then she mentioned that there was another room that could sleep five people, and it had three beds. And when I asked her how much that would be, she looked at me and just said “Too much.” At that point Peggy and I just turned around and hauled ass.
2009. The Texas/New Mexico border.
Exit 0, in the tiny town of Anthony. Not quite sure what the deal is with that, but I may look it up if I ever go through these notes.
The yellow sign with the chili peppers, the red and green chili peppers, "Welcome to New Mexico." And it's almost – no, it IS a psychic burden being lifted. I don't know what the fuck it is. It's not Texas itself, although there is some of that. It could simply be that I'm getting to the Southwest. And it could be that anything as big as Texas has to be dealt with at some level mentally.
Speed limit 70. Wow. And it could be that they have a lot invested in being that big, which is why they have to have every last foot accounted for down to exit 0. And maybe the rest of us have a lot invested in Texas being that big, too. Either way, I'm out. And hopefully, I'll be at my motel in 20 minutes. Hallelujah.
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Paul Vlachos is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He was born in New York City, where he currently lives. He is the author of “The Space Age Now,” released in 2020, “Breaking Gravity,” in 2021, and the just-released “Exit Culture.”